How Heart Health Factors Into Alzheimer’s Disease

To reverse the tide of dementia, medical researchers need to get past a broken paradigm
By Conan Milner
Conan Milner
Conan Milner
Conan Milner is a health reporter for the Epoch Times. He graduated from Wayne State University with a Bachelor of Fine Arts and is a member of the American Herbalist Guild.
July 25, 2019 Updated: July 26, 2019

Alzheimer’s disease is characterized by progressively worsening dementia. Almost 6 million Americans suffer from this disease, but that number is expected to more than double by 2050. It’s already a great burden for sufferers and their families, but the cost of care is quickly becoming an enormous economic burden for the entire country. Today, dementia patients cost the United States $290 billion a year. In 30 years, annual costs are projected to climb to $1.1 trillion.

woman in white shirt
In 30 years, annual costs of dementia are projected to climb to $1.1 trillion. (Shutterstock)

For several years, drug companies have claimed that a pharmaceutical solution for this looming crisis lay just over the horizon. In reality, however, the drugs they’ve tested have shown little promise.

One reason for these failures may lie in the drugs’ intended target: the brain. Alzheimer’s disease clearly has a destructive impact on the mind. Add to this the presence of amyloid plaques found in the brains of deceased Alzheimer’s patients, and you can see why conventional wisdom considers it a brain disease. But a number of doctors and researchers say this narrow understanding overlooks important warning signs that give more insight and dimension to this disease.

One such critic is Dr. Mark Menolascino who runs the Meno Clinic Center for Functional Medicine in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. Menolascino points to a growing body of research which finds that the health of the heart can reveal problems that will impact the brain down the road.

Menolascino is an internist who comes from a family of physicians, but he finds a lot wrong with modern medicine. In his new book “Heart Solution for Women: A Proven Program to Prevent and Reverse Heart Disease,” Menolascino looks at how the medical establishment’s narrow approach specifically impacts women. From the decades of research trials that failed to include any women in the sample, to ignoring the number of ways that female heart disease differs from male heart disease, Menolascino says such ignorance and lapses in judgment have helped contribute to heart disease becoming the most common killer among women today.

Menolascino says that if more women were advised on heart-healthy lifestyle choices by their doctors, not only would they be better able to avoid heart disease, they would be less likely to develop Alzheimer’s and depression as well.

The Epoch Times talked to Menolascino about the heart’s role in Alzheimer’s disease, as well as other ways our medical system misses the mark in regards to supporting health and well-being. Answers are edited for clarity and brevity.

The Epoch Times: We typically think of Alzheimer’s as a disease of the brain. How does the heart figure into it?

Dr. Mark Menolascino: The thing that really ties the brain and heart together is inflammation. The same kind of inflammation that makes that plaque rupture to give you a heart attack is the same type of inflammation that’s destroying the cells of the brain.

We got heart disease wrong for women and I think we’re getting Alzheimer’s disease wrong for everyone. We thought cholesterol caused heart disease. Now we know that half the people with normal cholesterol still have heart attacks, and half the people with high cholesterol never have heart attacks.

We thought Alzheimer’s was all about this amyloid plaque, and now we’re finding out that half the people who have Alzheimer’s don’t have amyloid plaque. So this idea that we’re going to have a single model therapy for Alzheimer’s has proved with billions of dollars and up to 40 clinical trials of medications wrong.

Their idea is that one therapy will work. But it’s not just one particle, it’s a whole person. Think about it like 36 holes in a roof. You could have one really good patch, but the roof still leaks. You have to work on all of them.

The Epoch Times: This whole-body perspective you’re talking about was once how doctors practiced medicine all around the world.  But for the last 100 years or so, our modern allopathic model has chosen a reductionist approach. Why does the medical establishment prefer this paradigm, and why are doctors like yourself returning to a more holistic approach?

Dr. Menolascino: I’m a board-certified internist and when I have pneumonia, I want the best antibiotic I can get. For acute care medicine like this, our medical model works incredibly well. But for chronic illness, like diabetes, heart disease, autoimmune disease, and dementia, that model doesn’t work very well. It woefully fails.

In medical school, we’re taught the Rene Descartes reductionist model. We break down everything into the smallest piece so we know what pill to put in what ill.

Now we’re returning back to this concept of systems theory. The body and the mind are a beautiful system, and they’re actually connected. In medical school, they told me the brain was a mysterious black box. It was independent and had no interaction or relationship to the rest of the body. Now we know that the chemicals in the gut are talking to the chemicals in the brain. Serotonin controls mood, and now we know that most of the serotonin originates in your gut.

There is 90 percent more serotonin in your gut than in your brain. The permeability of the gut—leaky gut—now correlates to the permeability of the blood-brain barrier—the leaky brain.

The heart and brain and all our organs are connected to each other by the vagus nerve (which is Latin for “wanderer”) and this conduit of information is a two-way channel of communication for the brain to the rest of the body and vice versa.

It’s about this whole system approach of looking at the brain. We now know that the brain and the body are intimately linked and that there is a relationship with the heart biorhythms and the brain biorhythms.

You can die of a broken heart, and we now know that what happens in the brain can also happen in the heart.

We’re finding such a beautiful relationship in our knowledge base of neuro-chemistry and neuroimmunology and how the immune system and nervous system are communicating. We thought the brain was immune protected and privileged, and now we know that the brain and immune system have an intimate dance that they do, and inflammation in the body affects inflammation in the brain.  Did you know depression may actually be an inflammatory disorder, not a serotonin imbalance?

We’re just beginning to understand that your hormone balance has a lot to do with your brain health. That doesn’t mean everyone should take hormones, but it shows how we’re exposed to hormones in our food, environment, and medication, and how your body must process them and detoxify them.

The Epoch Times: One of the alarming things about Alzheimer’s is how fast it’s growing. Why do you think we’re seeing such a sharp rise in this disease?

Dr. Menolascino: Obviously, part of the reason is that we’re living longer so we’re seeing more. But it may also have to do with the lack of quality food, the reduced nutrient density in our soils, the increased toxicity and exogenous hormones in our food and environment, and all the chemicals that we’re exposed to. So I don’t think it’s any one thing. But I do think it’s a combination. And a lot of these exposures start when we are very young.

We also don’t have good tools for it. The medications don’t really help.

The Epoch Times: What are the symptoms that show someone is on the road to developing a chronic inflammatory disease?

Dr. Menolascino: We can see them when they first walk into our office. It’s the people who carry extra weight around the middle—particularly in the waist more than the hips. It’s that central body fat, that internal, visceral, hot, inflammatory fat that people hold that makes the liver not as healthy. We can see the ruddiness in the skin, the buffalo hump or fat pad of insulin resistance on their neck. We can see nutrient deficiencies in their fingernails. We can see fatty acid deficiencies in the skin. We see food sensitivities with different patchiness on the tongue. We see little fat deposits on the eyelid.

There’s a lot we can see on the body, but really, the average American is diabetic and obese. And what we’re settling toward is average. They’re saying two out of three children born this year will become diabetic adults. That’s just not acceptable. We have to turn the tide of inflammatory obesity and diabetes.

We’re now calling Alzheimer’s Type 3 diabetes. There is very early insulin dysregulation before we see blood sugar changes that suggest the blood sugar of the brain is abnormal. Sugar is like fire on the brain. It’s like when you take a beautiful organic apple and dip it in candy and caramelize it. It’s what we’re doing to ourselves. No matter how good the inside is when you put a sugar coating on it, you’re going to disrupt its ability to function.

The Epoch Times: So we should definitely cut back on our sugar, but what other steps can we take to reduce our risk of Alzheimer’s?

Dr. Menolascino: What we really want to do is focus on clean food, clean water, and clean air. We want to have love and support in our lives, and exercise in moderation. You really have the ability to turn on good genes and turn off bad genes, and the power is at the end of your fork.

And it’s not just what you eat, but how you eat. Do you eat alone in your car or desk at work shoveling down fast food, or do you eat with a group of people you care about and share the love of the day, and support each other to make good choices? You’re only as healthy as your friends are so pick good friends.

As far as exercise, do the little things. Take the stairs instead of the elevator, do a few laps around the grocery store before you get your cart and start shopping. When it’s safe, park at the end of the parking lot and walk from the other end to the store. Just get a little bit of extra movement and extra support in your life. Find people that care about you and that you care about. And try to eat clean, less processed food.

The Epoch Times: These are the most basic tenets of health that doctors have been preaching forever. Why does this simple message still have trouble getting through?

Dr. Menolascino: I was told in medical school that I would need to see a patient every seven minutes. A current study shows that a doctor will interrupt within 11 seconds of a patient talking. Our current medical model is not designed to listen to people and get to know them. You have to build a relationship and a trust where you can talk about lifestyle things. Today, it’s all about writing a prescription and it’s not really focused on wellness.

I talked to a CEO who was very stressed out and unhealthy and he just didn’t know where to start. I said, “Everyday at lunchtime, take one employee, and offer to take them for a 15 minute paid walk. Ask them about themselves, their family, and your business. You will learn more about yourself and the people who work for you. You will be doing yourself a favor, but you will also be helping someone else.”

A year later, he had lost 80 lbs. He was heralded as one of the best bosses in the industry, and he had a very vibrant, healthy and productive workforce. All it takes is one decision and we can really help each other. It’s not that hard to get healthy and stay healthy.

But don’t try to do it all at once. Just try little steps. Go for a small walk around the block after dinner for the first week. Do two blocks the second week, then three blocks. Start slow, be successful, congratulate yourself. Take a friend with you, even if it’s your dog.

The Epoch Times: I’m struck by this idea of community in regard to our health. Why are relationships so important?

Dr. Menolascino: We know that women live longer than men because they have better relationships. The Mediterranean eating plan seems to have the best mortality benefit. It may be the food, but it’s also different in Italy, France, and Greece. What’s common in these cultures is that they eat as a family and as a group. They laugh, they love, they share and support. They cook and clean and eat together.

We’re very social beings. We need stress in our lives because it what gets us out of bed, but stress can either be the glass half full or half empty. It’s your choice. If you surround yourself with people whose glass is half empty, you’re going to find that your support system isn’t as healthy.

Choose healthy friends. Try to help support them and I think you’ll find that life is more fun, more enjoyable, and you’ll probably be healthier if you find that kind of love and support in your life.

The Epoch Times: But drug companies say a cure for diseases like Alzheimer’s is just around the corner. Why should we bother with all this healthy food and lifestyle stuff if there is a promise that we’ll soon have a drug to take care of it?

Dr. Menolascino: It’s interesting you said that. Dr. David Perlmutter is a good friend of mine who wrote the book Grain Brain. He’s a neurologist and one of the premier experts on Alzheimer’s. Last week he posted that there will never be a drug for Alzheimer’s in our lifetime. They are failing miserably at this single drug therapy because I think we’re approaching the wrong target. Alzheimer’s is a multi-factorial system.

I would be the first to celebrate a miracle drug. But I’ve been looking at Alzheimer’s research for years. I did the very first clinical trial 35 years ago, and it’s not any better than what we have now. I think it’s because the entire approach is wrong. We’re never going to have single drug success because it’s a multi-factorial systemic effect. Medications for chronic conditions just do not work well and have a whole host of side effects.

In functional medicine, any disease a person has can have multiple different pathways to get to that endpoint. To restore health, you have to unravel those multiple pathways, and it’s unique for everyone. So instead of a one-size-fits-all, it’s a unique personalized, precision approach. What’s your story? How did you get there?

We should be asking ourselves, “What can we do in our own lives?” Because Alzheimer’s starts 10, 15, even 20 years before there are symptoms. It’s inflammation that is brewing. These lifestyle choices are slowly wearing away at you until you develop this memory problem that fits this category. And once you do, they say, “We really don’t have a treatment. Get your affairs in order. Your future is in a nursing home.”

But there is a proven model that takes this whole-person approach. It looks at nutrition, detoxification, hormone balance, and genetic variability. This is really where the future of Alzheimer’s therapy is going to be, both prevention and treatment.

There’s a company called Enso Health that is looking to put together this protocol and develop a coach-based model with five of the premier physicians in functional medicine all collaborating. This approach helps fix all 36 holes in the roof. You’ll see the results of this next year. Cognitive decline is reversible and I believe preventable.

The Epoch Times: As I was reading the heart health statistics in your book, and how our medical system has ignored women in this regard, it made me wonder if there were female-specific features in regard to Alzheimer’s too. Does this disease affect women differently than men?

Dr. Menolascino: Women are more afflicted with Alzheimer’s than men are and part of it may be the hormone changes women go through are more abrupt than men’s are. The other thing is that most caregivers of Alzheimer’s patients are women. Studies have shown that being a caregiver of Alzheimer’s patients actually induces cognitive loss. So women really carry the burden of dementia in our country and worldwide.

But what we’re seeing is that a functional approach to dementia, or what they’re calling mild cognitive impairment—when someone is having memory problems with day to day activities—that you can slow down or reverse it. What a game-changer it could be for our society just to be able to slow that process down, and potentially reverse it for some people.

There are protocols out there looking at this whole-person approach that are reversing dementia and mild cognitive impairment, and slowing down this progression. I think you’ll see a wave of programs coming out by doctors like myself who have the tools. But very few doctors can do this because they don’t understand hormones, detoxification, and genetics, and it’s very complicated to put it all together. That’s why you don’t hear much about this. It’s much easier to prescribe a pill. It’s much, much harder to teach patients about lifestyle factors and detoxification and putting it all in a plan to help a unique individual. But it’s really fun. It’s my personal passion. I have taught tens of thousands of doctors how to do it. And I’ll teach tens of thousands more.

The Epoch Times: It’s interesting that you came from a family of conventional doctors, but you decided to take a functional medicine approach. What made you choose this path?

Dr. Menolascino: When I was in high school I worked in clinical trials that saw how tobacco tar caused cancer, but my pediatrician smoked. So I decided I could not be part of this broken medical system. Then I started working with Dr. Dean Ornish who was studying 100 men who had heart attacks and heart vessel blockages. They were either going to have bypass surgery, or they were going to do his program, exercise and eat right, deal with stress, have love and support. People said he was crazy, but guess what? 35 years later, his group has done better.

I saw in high school that lifestyle medicine trumped acute care medicine, so I wanted to be the best at both. I wanted to be an internal medicine specialist, so I could understand the intricacies of medicine and acute care. But I also spent time learning about nutrition, Ayurvedic and Chinese medicine, lifestyle, and exercise. So I have all these tools and we can pick and choose which are the right ones for you.

This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

Conan Milner
Conan Milner
Conan Milner is a health reporter for the Epoch Times. He graduated from Wayne State University with a Bachelor of Fine Arts and is a member of the American Herbalist Guild.